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Trotsky on "degeneration" and "entire generations passing into discard" (1933)

"It is not a question of counterposing abstract principles. . . . [W]ith the degeneration of organizations, with the passing of entire generations into discard . . . the necessity . . . arises of mobilizing fresh forces on a new historical stage. . . . With inevitable halts and partial retreats it is necessary to move forward on a road crisscrossed by countless obstacles and covered with the debris of the past. Those who are frightened by this had better step aside."

* * *

"Realism Versus Pessimism:"

"The fact that two parties, the Social Democratic and the Communist, which arose half a century apart and which both proceeded from the theory of Marxism and the class interests of the proletariat, could have come to such a sad end –- the one through base treachery, the other through bankruptcy –- can engender pessimistic moods even among the advanced workers. 'Where is the guarantee that a new revolutionary selection will not suffer the same fate?' Those who demand guarantees in advance should in general renounce revolutionary politics. The causes for the downfall of the Social Democracy and of official Communism must be sought not in Marxist theory and not in the bad qualities of those people who applied it, but in the concrete conditions of the historical process. It is not a question of counterposing abstract principles, but rather of the struggle of living social forces, with its inevitable ups and downs, with the degeneration of organizations, with the passing of entire generations into discard, and with the necessity which therefore arises of mobilizing fresh forces on a new historical stage. No one has bothered to pave in advance the road of revolutionary upsurge for the proletariat. With inevitable halts and partial retreats it is necessary to move forward on a road crisscrossed by countless obstacles and covered with the debris of the past. Those who are frightened by this had better step aside. . . .

"A revolutionary tendency cannot score stormy victories at a time when the proletariat as a whole is suffering the greatest defeats. But this is no justification for letting one's hands hang. Precisely in the periods of revolutionary ebb tide are cadres formed and tempered which will later be called upon to lead the masses in the new assault."

-- Leon Trotsky, "Is It Necessary to Build Communist Parties and an International Anew?" [in the context of the victory of the Nazis] (1933)

http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1933/330715.htm

-- How much more true Trotsky's insights into regression are about today than they were about the 1930s; today, when we are faced not with "partial defeats" but with wholesale rout, and over the course of multiple generations!

"The causes for the downfall of the Social Democracy and of official Communism must be sought not in Marxist theory and not in the bad qualities of those people who applied it."

So, not "counterposing abstract principles" (like pro/contra "Leninism," or "democracy," etc.), but "the concrete conditions of the historical process" in which such "principles" have/had their true meaning, the process in which the historical Left has been implicated in its course and not merely its victim.

For today we are not merely in an "ebb tide," but in the absolute dregs and back-wash, the worst time for the Left, theoretically and practically, since Marx's day!

But the obstacles and "debris of the past" are no less our problem than they were for the Left in the 1930s -- and 1960s. They are even more so problems for us today than they were back then.

As Adorno put it in Negative Dialectics (1966): "The liquidation of theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice. . . . The interrelation of both moments [of theory and practice] is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically. . . . Those who chide theory [for being] anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful [because it was] thwarted."

I agree with Trotsky, emphatically: "Those who are frightened by this had better step aside."

For the "obstacles" and "debris of the past" can and must -- and will -- be cleared away, and by "fresh forces on a new historical stage" -- but only by regarding this past from fresh and completely new perspectives, not subject to the "nightmare on the brains of the living" of the entire "traditions of dead generations" that need be "discarded."

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